Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2021 Edited by Jesmyn Ward and Heidi Pitlor

This collection is comprised of what is considered by the two editors to be the best “literary” short stories of the year, as opposed to the best genre short stories, which appear in different collections. As usual, though, two of the most interesting stories are, in fact, science fiction and fantasy respectively, showing that there is considerable overlap and subjective assessments when it comes to which stories are selected for the various volumes.

The science fiction story is “Love Letter” by George Saunders, which takes the form of a deceptively sweet missive from a grandfather to his grandson in a United States that has become authoritarian in the manner of George Orwell’s 1984. It is even more frightening because of its subtle references to current political realities. The fantasy story is “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)” by Jane Pek, which concerns two immortal women who wander the world, one of whom decides to forsake her immortality for a chance to get married and have children.

One of the strengths of this collection is the diversity of cultures and backgrounds in the stories. There are tales set in China, Japan, Nigeria, and other locales, and these settings are not just backdrops but are integral aspects of the plots and themes of the various stories. One of the weaknesses of the collection is that so many of the selections are more like descriptions or character studies instead of actual stories. This causes readers to sort of view them objectively from a distance for the artistic construction of their components rather than become immersed and involved in what is taking place with the characters. I read for quite a while before finding a story that felt like an actual story, that drew me in and made me care deeply about what was happening. This was “Paradise” by Yxta Maya Murray. This story features as first-person protagonist a black woman whose white husband has died. She and her daughter live with the blatantly conservative and intolerant father of her late husband in a town called Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. When a wildfire threatens the town, the protagonist wants to evacuate to save her daughter, while the father-in-law/grandfather wants to try and stay and protect his home and possessions. This story is based on the historical wildfire that swept through and all but destroyed Paradise in 2018. Another story that is intensely absorbing in terms of plot, character, and setting is “You Are My Dear Friend” by Madhuri Vijay, about an Indian woman who cannot have children and decides to adopt a child from a poor background who turns out to be disrespectful, disobedient, and almost feral. “Palaver” by Bryan Washington and “Biology” by Kevin Wilson, two of the shorter entries in the book that appear near the end, also work well in terms of highlighting mother-son and teacher-student relationships.

Another aspect of this collection I see as a weakness is that the editors have chosen to present the stories alphabetically by the names of the authors rather than arranging them balanced according to themes, characters, setting, length, and so on. A different arrangement would have made for an easier read. That aside, as usual, I would sum up by saying that there are stories I enjoyed, stories about which I was indifferent, and stories I had a hard time getting through – which is usual for this type of collection.

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